AiW Guest Gbemisola Abiola.
Tope Folarin’s Miracle depicts the prevailing belief in Christian supernaturalism, and the apparent promise of prosperity it holds for the African adherent, as the means of achieving success in the Diasporas. While the story is set in a church in America, it may just as well be located in any of the modern day Pentecostal churches in Nigeria, particularly those found in the South Western region. The predominant thematic leaning of the story is an all too familiar one, especially for a reader who is well acquainted with the Pentecostal style of worship and its different brands of expression. As the story interrogates the link between faith and prosperity – prosperity in its material and non material sense – one finds the narrator (or author?) negotiating the divide between belief and unbelief.
The story balances on a platform of miracles: miracles to help get “jobs”, “green cards”, “good grades” and “kidneys”. This list is by no means exhaustive as the story indicates that parishioners need miracles to “forget the harsh rigidity of (their) lives” (p.74). Drawing from the nuances of the story one finds that these miracles are predicated on, or can only be acquired through, an exchange of belief. Whereas the object of belief in the larger view is God, a close up perspective points to the prophet as the subject of belief, one who is ascribed powers to heal and “perform miracles that were previously only possible in the pages of the bible” (p. 73). The earnestness expressed by the parishioners to receive their portions of miracles demonstrates how the concept of faith or belief is very far removed from being a private act of veneration, becoming instead a public display of spirituality.
Caught in this mix, the narrator is singled out for a miracle to cure his short-sight. In the following medley of events, one finds the story strewn with signposts of hope as the atmosphere is charged with expectation. For the reader, the dramatic urgency with which the miracle is described makes one anticipate that the spectacular will indeed happen and the happy ending, which makes a story settle well in the mind, will occur. Against this expectation Folarin creates a twist, as the narrator’s sight is restored not by a miraculous act, but by the same glasses which had previously aided his sight. The language in which this is told has a playful and vivid descriptiveness to it that is laced with humour and a healthy dose of sarcasm. Ultimately the experience opens the narrator’s eyes to miracles to believe in within his own lived experience; his family have “remained together despite the terror of (his) mother’s abrupt departure” (p. 82). To be sure this opens up the question not only of what a miracle is, but also questions the meaning of faith or belief itself. Perhaps the author is relating on a sub-conscious level with other young Nigerians who are having conversations about these concepts and interrogating how valid they are to modern life. While this does not, for the most part indicate that they have shed off their belief, for that is the way many have been socialized, what is striking is their willingness to bring their doubts and concerns about these subjects to the public space. Do they get answers? Well, that is a different matter altogether.
The story is swathed in familiar images that define Pentecostal churches and their feisty preachers and prophets. And of course there are malevolent spirits. Just as people believe that a Psychic is capable of communicating with the dead and exorcising a haunted house of its ghostly occupants, the prophet is believed to possess the ability to detect these malevolent spirits and command their exit; spirits whose sole purpose it is to impede the effecting of a miracle or the attainment of success. Interestingly, both the prophet and the parishioners consider their faith as superior to the malevolent spirits that they believe control economic forces which threaten their prosperity and well-being, hence their confidence in miracles. Whereas it is fairly obvious that economic challenges occur in all places and are common to all people; simply put, life happens!
Some of my thumbs down moments in the story: for one, having the prayer and the whole of it too in the second paragraph, right in the beginning, felt to me alienating for potential readers. If you are not the pious type or one who can suffer the rituals of the religious, the temptation is to skim over it. This paragraph should have been made shorter:
We have come from all over North Texas to see him. Some of us have come from Oklahoma, some of us from Arkansas, a few of us from Louisiana, and a couple from New Mexico (p. 74)
Repeating information does not only slow down the tempo of the story, it also comes across as lazy and it is easy to assume that the author in seeking to fill up space had to repeat the same words.
Some of my favourite lines include:
We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand that they are Nigerians. (p. 74)
This very simple line is laden with meaning; from the identity crisis suffered by different generations of Nigerians in the Diasporas, to disconnected relationships between parents and their children and vice versa. And:
We search our hearts for the seedlings of doubt…. Many of us have to cut through thickets of doubt before we can find our hearts again. (p. 75)
For most people this is familiar territory, as every so often life brings circumstances that challenge our self-confidence and sense of self-worth.
Folarin’s Miracle definitely engages in that ‘unsafe’ space of debates on the relevance of religion, especially in economically prosperous societies in the West. With arguments that claim that religion as the cause of all things evil, coupled with the skeptical stance on Christian supernaturalism and the religious viewed as blind, gullible, mindless followers – placing this story against this backdrop warms itself to the movement that demands verifiable evidence or an objective basis for establishing the necessity for religion. Probably this makes him a bold writer or perhaps it reveals an attempt to repaint a well-worn theme in the colours of personal experience.
Gbemisola Abiola is a writer, editor and voice over artist based in Lagos. Her area of interest lies in the interconnection between literature, politics and history with a focus on how fiction shapes people’s perception of themselves and their representation in the world. She is currently working on a PhD in the Department of English at the University of Lagos. She loves to try new things, including trying new recipes and playing a guitar. She can reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This post is part of the first week of Blogging the Caine 2013, in which a group of writers organised by Aaron Bady write about the shortlist for this year’s Caine Prize. Africa in Words will be posting on each of the shortlisted stories week by week.
Rebecca Jones has also written about Tope Folarin’s ‘Miracle’ for Africa in Words, describing the story as a ‘thick stew, dense and tightly woven with images and words.’
Read other responses to Tope Folarin’s Miracle from:
Beverley Nambozo at http://walkingdiplomat.blogspot.com
Veronica Nkwocha at http://veronicankwocha.com
KolaTubosun at http://nigerianstalk.org
Ainehi Edoro at http://brittlepaper.com
Aaron Bady at http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/zunguzungu
Keguro Macharia at http://gukira.wordpress.com
Scott Ross at http://backslashscott.wordpress.com
Ben Laden at http://uninterpretative.blogspot.com
Okwiri Oduor at http://okwiri.tumblr.com
Kate Maxwell at http://skatemaxwell.wordpress.com
Rebecca Jones for Africa in Words at http://africainwords.com
If you’d like to participate in ‘Blogging the Caine 2013’ email Aaron Bady (aaron AT thenewinquiry DOT com) or join the conversation here or on twitter (#caineprize).